Literary Lists of “Ten Best”

Ten Street SignThe UK newspaper The Guardian has an ongoing series that focuses on “The 10 Best of” a variety of topics. They’ve covered a range of interests, including fashion, movies, comedy, politics, and music. Fortunately for those of us who teach literature, The Guardian feature has included these unusual literary lists of ten:

You’ll find that some of the lists are stronger than others. For instance, I was disappointed to find that the heroes from children’s fiction focused solely on white heroes, and the books about war failed to include Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. How could a list of best war books not include The Things They Carried?!

What the lists do extremely well however is demonstrate a great amount of creativity in topics. That’s certainly the only list of best pairs of glasses or best tattoos I’ve ever seen. Sometimes the lists are particularly relevant to current events, such as the best elections list published today. If you do nothing more than read through the lists, you’re bound to find a new text to add to your reading list—or a reminder of a text that would be enjoyable to revisit.

Come back tomorrow for a great year-end activity inspired by these literary lists!

Video Interview of Author Tim O’Brien

Vietnam War Soldier Helmet, CC Flickr photo by MattsipIf you’re teaching Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, be sure to take a look at Big Think’s video interview with the author.

In addition to talking about his novel, O’Brien talks about the process of writing and the role that literature plays in our lives. Having just written an Inbox blog on making personal connections to the texts that we read, I was especially taken by O’Brien’s story about how his writing had touched one specific reader. He concludes by noting that “Literature does touch people; it’s not just to be read in English classes.”

The video interview is accompanied by a text transcript, so you can read excerpts to your classes if you do not have the equipment to play the video itself in the classroom.

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by Mattsip]

Poem 14: “[Blank Verse]”

Somehow I never saw Ernest Hemingway’s "[Blank Verse]" until tonight. When I first saw it on someone else’s blog, I was certain it was a hoax, but I actually confirmed its authenticity. It’s right there on page 6 of Hemingway’s Complete Poems, written in 1916.  I think it’s a little hard to read, so I added boldface to make things stand out.

[Blank Verse]

"                         "
       !             :                  ,                 .
              ,            ,            ,                 .
      ,              ;                              !

I would say that I appreciate Hemingway’s fiction, but his work falls outside the areas I usually follow. Having found "[Blank Verse]" though, I’m wondering if I shouldn’t take some time to page through his poetry. Maybe there’s another hidden wonder inside. For now, I’m going to head to bed wondering how on earth you present that poem at a poetry reading :-)

Poem 13: “The Complaint of Chaucer to his Purse”

I have a running list of poems to include this month, but none of them were singing to me. There’s a bit too much stress in my world right now to feel very poetic. That is until I Googled around a bit and remembered "The Complaint of Chaucer to his Purse."

What a perfect poem for a day when I’m feeling all my many bills and my very empty checking account.

The Complaint of Chaucer to his Purse
A Supplication to King Henry
To yow, my purs, and to non othir wyght
Complayne I, for ye ben my lady dere!
I am so sory, now that ye been lyght;
For certes, but yf ye make me hevy chere,
Me were as leef be leyd upon my bere;
For which unto your mercy thus I crye,
Beth hevy ayeyn, or elles mot I dye!
Now voucheth sauf this day, or hyt be nyght,
That I of yow the blisful soun may here,
Or se your colour lyk the sonne bryght,
That of yelownesse had never pere.
Ye be my lyf, ye be myne hertes stere,
Quene of comfort and of gode companye;
Beth hevy ayeyn, or elles mot I dye!
Now purs, that ben to me my lyves lyght
And saveour, as doun in this worlde here,
Out of this towne helpe me thurgh your myght,
Syn that ye wylle nat ben my tresorere;
For I am shave as nye as any frere.
But yet I prey unto youre curtesye,
Beth heavy ayeyn, or elles mot I dye!
Lenvoy de Chaucer
O conqueror of Brutes Albyoun,
Which that by lyne and fre eleccion
Ben verray kyng, this song to you I sende;
And ye, that mowen alle oure harmes amende,
Have mynde upon my supplicacioun.

The Guardian Book Blog Poem of the Week has more details on the poem if you’d like background (or to see what medieval pennies looked like).

Poem 12: “Easter, 1916”

If the beginning of April must be marked with The Canterbury Tales and The Waste Land, Easter must be celebrated with a reading of William Butler Yeats’s "Easter 1916."  I think I learned 99% of what I know about Irish history from Yeats’s works. Maybe 75% would be more accurate. Need to make room for Synge, Shaw, and Joyce. Oh, and Swift.

I could spend this entry explaining all the historical allusions in "Easter 1916," but the Wikipedia entry has done a reasonable job of that already. I do wish their analysis addressed the duality of some of the imagery as religious motifs. Expanding that entry a bit would make a nice student assignment actually.

As I was exploring resources for this entry, I found an online exhibition from the National Library of Ireland (Flash required) that includes audio and images of Yeats’s artifacts and papers. Launch the exhibition, click on the "Interactives" button, and choose the "EASTER, 1916" resources. The manuscript images for the poem are represented by the four pages in the lower right corner of the exhibit case. Click on the pages in the case, and details appear below the case. From there, you can reach images of each of the 4 pages of the manuscript.

Those who know me know that I’m a sucker for a manuscript. While I can identify most of the words on the manscript, I do wish it were about twice the size so I could study the details more carefully. A bit more information on the manuscript pages would be nice as well. Page three shows the most revision. The other pages are relatively unchanged. Still, it’s the poem, in the poet’s hand—and that is always a glorious thing, especially to the part of me who would love to be a special collections librarian, free to frolic in manuscripts all day, every day!

Poem 11: “Jabberwocky”

Lewis Carroll’s "Jabberwocky" is wonderfully fun as a nonsense poem. Many consider it the best example of a nonsense poem that we have in fact. How can you look on the opening lines and not smile?

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

If you’re totally lost, the Wikipedia entry on the poem adds some definitions and helpful explanations, as well as an excellent list of allusions and derivative works.

The poem is one of my favorites to use in grammar lessons, especially when I was teaching sentence diagramming in a senior-level grammar class for English majors and pre-service teachers. Students had to rely on word forms and syntactical placement to figure out the parts of speech for each word—and since the words were nonsense, everything was open to discussion and multiple meanings.

I’m not likely to teach sentence diagramming again, but "Jabberwocky" is still a great poem to use for mini-lessons on diction and syntax.

Poem 10: “Theme for English B”

 Langston Hughes’s "Theme for English B" isn’t my favorite Hughes’ works, but it so perfectly describes the student’s dilemma when writing for a teacher who will never understand him that I think every teacher, especially every writing teacher, should read this poem.

Since I did write a book on the topic, I’m compelled to address the assignment that begins the poem:

    Go home and write
    a page tonight.
    And let that page come out of you--
    Then, it will be true.

Poetically, it’s a lovely thing. As a writing assignment, it lacks a great deal of detail and support. Every writing teacher should note the speaker’s difficulty at pinning down the details of the assignment—Whose idea of truth? Will the teacher understand truths that don’t match his or her views of the world?

Ultimately the speaker draws conclusions about truths, both personal and social. I just hope that teacher is up to the challenge of responding!

Poem 9: “Richard Cory”

I know. Another narrative. I think I liked Edwin Arlington Robinson’s "Richard Cory" first because it tricked me. I recall reading it in my sophomore American Lit survey class. I think it was the simplicity of the lines and their abab rhyme scheme. I was taken in by the nursery-rhyme-like quality and then shocked by that last line. That was the point, of course. Robinson got exactly the reaction he wanted out of me.

For better or worse though, the version of the poem that I carry around in my head is courtesy of Simon and Garfunkel:


Poem 8: “We Real Cool”

Another poem I enjoy teaching, Gwendolyn Brooks’s "We Real Cool" has been a powerful tool for discussions of voice and style in the classroom. Like "The Writer," this poem inspired a ReadWriteThink lesson plan, Many Years Later: Responding to Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool.”

The activity that I describe in the lesson, and also in a related English Journal article, “Write Like You Talk (Snapshots),” demonstrated to me how important it is for students to writing from authentic subject position and in their own voice. (You can find out more by reading the EJ article.)

Okay, I admit though, choosing this poem is probably prideful. It’s a poem I like and that I teach well. Further, it led to my first publication in English Journal. Who wouldn’t be pleased about that? 

But there’s more. I found about a month ago that the Library of Congress’s Web Guide, "Gwendolyn Brooks: Online Resources," points to my lesson plan. Seriously, scroll down to the lesson plan section and there it is. Okay, it’s just a link, but hey, someone at the Library of Congress thought my lesson was good enough to point to. And it’s all because of that great poem by Gwendolyn Brooks.

Poem 7: “The Writer”

I’ve liked Richard Wilbur’s "The Writer" since I came across it my first year as a teacher. I may have read the poem earlier, but I don’t have any memories of it.

Instead I remember teaching with it. I guess I’m realizing I have a pattern—I like teaching narrative poems. But this poem in particular always seemed perfect for the writing classroom, with it’s metaphor for what it’s like to be a writer and struggle through attempt after attempt at the right word and the most effective phrase.

If you want to see how I used the poem in the classroom, check out my ReadWriteThink lesson plan: Writing about Writing: An Extended Metaphor Assignment.